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The Future of Wearables Is Normal Clothes Made Smart

Justin Sullivan/Getty

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"Look at what you’re wearing right now," VFiles founder Julie Anne Quay instructs Racked, before telling us to imagine "that every single piece of fabric that you have is a usable tech service." This, she says, is the future of wearables.

The current crop of wearables has mostly been constrained to your wrist in the form of clunky Apple Watches and Moto 360s. Attempt to vary the where in wearables, like Google Glass — the no-longer-in-production spectacles so nerdy only cast members from The Big Bang Theory dared to wear them out in public — have already been cast to the junk heap of history. When a gadget seemingly straight from the future couldn’t cut it, it speaks to the fact that we need our wearables to be stylish and practical.

So, follow us to the world 2025, where the word "wearables" might be as archaic as the Motorola Razr many of us lugged around circa 2005. On your left, there’s a man walking down the sidewalk with a T-shirt playing Fast and Furious 15 through an embedded screen on the front, there’s a red-faced woman on a run whose sports bra is ventilating as her body heat increases. Across the street there’s a couple whose shirts just jumped from blue to red as an argument erupted. Your watch just buzzed to let you know that it’s about to rain, and we can use tech pods to grow sleeves that cover up our arms or press the button to extend the hem on a shirt.

Intel's Chromat Adrenaline dress. Image: Intel

In the future wearables will most likely be simply known as just clothes. Companies like Intel are already working to make what seems like a far-off vision a reality. "The most exciting thing is going to be when the technology [becomes] so small and tiny that we'll be able to embed it into anything and everything," Aysegul Ildeniz, the vice president of Intel’s New Devices, tells us. "So we’re talking about potentially, one day, fabrics or the stuff we wear on us will be smart... we could put it in a hat, or shoe, or pants."

Maribel Lopez, who founded mobile market consultancy firm Lopez Research, brings up the concept of so-called "killer apps." A cell phone’s killer app, for instance, is its ability to communicate with others. "Is there the killer app equivalent of phone calls for smartphones with wearables?" Lopez asks rhetorically. "I think the one universal thing that wearables will do will be something around digital health… The only thing I think everybody has is health."

"One day, fabrics or the stuff we wear on us will be smart."

What Ildeniz and Intel are envision is a type of technology that can provide users with all the advantages of something like a FitBit or Nike FuelBand (plus much more) without the awkwardness of wearing the device on your wrist. This could mean greater consistency for fitness tracker users: currently 50% of users to quit strapping on their device after just six months.

But banish thoughts of something as simplistic as step tracking. Lopez imagines a world where people with diabetes are able to discover their glucose levels without pricking themselves or athletes who can track their oxygen levels through their T-shirt.

Jacob Surber, senior product manager at leading wearables company Pebble, goes one step further. Currently Pebble makes smartwatches that works with apps from companies like ESPN and Uber, but Surber says that in the future wearables will be able to "diagnose different disorders" or help patients with issues already ailing them. For instance, Pebble is working with orthopedic groups to test wearables on "patients with back pain and have found that 60 to 70% of users who walk a certain amount of steps every hour reduce their back pain and longevity for mobility by like a huge margin if they just do this certain amount of activity. So we’ve only begun to scratch the surface on what wearables can do in the health space, literally medically." Surber also says that as the technology advances, it will be easier to explain symptoms to a doctor or even get the most out of a workout because a trainer can see how much energy is being exerted.

"I see my wearable being my identification."

In addition to all the biometric information future wearables should be able to provide, the most sci-fi movie-esque feature of wearables will be the ability to connect you to everything else around you. "You will actually have a shirt and a smartwatch and you’ll enter a room at your work and the wall or your desk is going to know that you’re there," Ildeniz says. "And it’s going to do some certain functions: control the air that you like or it’s going to let your colleagues know you entered a certain room." Surber envisions a similar future. "I see my wearable being my identification," he says. "How I get recognized when I walk into stores, into my house, even into an individual room. I see in two to three years — tops — my house will be largely controlled just by knowing where I am. I go back to Minority Report where they had those eye scanners everywhere and it was tracking you, customizing advertisements to you based on retinal scans."

Getting to this point, though, is still going to take some work on the part of designers. "What I call the projection from dorky, to dorky-chic, to actually wearable," Lopez explains. It’s the aesthetic barriers that are getting in the way of more widespread acceptance. It’s the biggest problem that companies like Pebble are trying to overcome. Pebble’s most recent edition, the Pebble Time Round, is one of the thinnest smart watches to hit the market. It’s actually round, like most traditional watches. To get the watch so thin, Pebble had to sacrifice a bit in the battery department. However, as Wired notes, many people will "gladly trade a little longevity for looks in this case."

"The projection from dorky, to dorky-chic, to actually wearable."

It’s this stylistic problem that companies like VFiles, a retailer with a dedicated (and very active) online community component, are trying to tackle. For the first year ever, VFiles is introducing a wearables category to its crowd-sourced fashion shows. Founder Quay is adamant that designers that will crack the wearable code; not the tech geeks approaching her with ideas for biometric shirts. "For us, we want to know: what color is that thing?" she says. "Does it come in long sleeve? Does it have a collar? Can I zip the collar up? Is it waterproof? So for our community to get into wearable tech and play around with it and experience it, it has to be something that is actually fashionable."

Even a tech giant like Intel agrees with Quay. Intel is sponsoring a new show called America’s Greatest Makers to tap into the minds of creative people. "It is a combination of different factors and people with very different backgrounds who are going to bring new perspectives to how wearables can be worn, what functions they can serve, how beautiful they can look — all beyond the realm of what technology companies can imagine," Ildeniz says. As Quay points out, the biometric tech is just the beginning, saying, "We’ll be able to release t-shirts that are screens, so you could be walking and CNN is playing on your shirt right now. Or you could change the color of your shirt whenever you want, you know you could change the length of your shirt, there’s technology that if you’re cold you can place like three tech pods on your arm and your shirt will grow sleeves."

Ralph Lauren's PoloTech shirt testing at the U.S. Open. Image: Ralph Lauren

The future of wearables though has probably already been born out of the minds of sci-fi writers and directors who influence pop culture and in turn inspire reality. "It has forever," Surber says of pop culture’s influence. "Look at Star Trek or 50,000 Leagues Under the Sea. That’s essentially the role of sci-fi authors, to envision the way things work." The odds of pop culture playing a role in future wearables are forever in our favor, Quay concurs. "If you watch The Hunger Games, and you watch what people wear in the capital, and you see the wardrobes for that, which are very colorful and uber expressive. I think that — I mean, I know — our approach to wearable tech is going to be along [those lines]," she says.

It’s this marriage of technology, pop culture, and design that will make putting on the wearables of the future as simple as throwing on a T-shirt. "I don’t think technology should stand alone anymore, it should be a part of our everyday lives," Ildeniz says. So before you pop a pill that taste like mom’s meatloaf, hop in your flying car, and meet a virtual personal assistant that you fall in love with, don’t forget to throw on the shirt that will act as the gateway to the interconnected world of 2025.